Admission to graduate programs is very competitive, especially for Ph.D. programs, in part because many schools provide funding for their graduate students (whether as fellowships, teaching assistant positions, or research assistantships). However, there are many ways to improve your chances of acceptance into graduate programs. Some factors to consider:
1) Score well on the GRE. This exam is a general measure of your knowledge of the English language and mathematics and of your ability to think logically, but more specifically it reflects your ability to take tests...so take the practice tests (available on CD-ROM and at public libraries) multiple times. Some schools focus more on this than others, but getting the best scores you can is in your best interest all around. Schools will not accept you based solely on GRE scores, but they might drop your application before reading it if scores are too low--this is a factor many departments use to weed out weaker candidates easily.
2) GPA is an important factor, but not the most important. A high GPA is very good, but GRE scores, application essays, and letters of recommendation are generally given higher comparative values within the admissions process. A low GPA is a very strong detriment, however. If you do have low grades for a semester yet have a good reason for them (significant illness, death in the family, etc.), one strategy is to discuss this with one of your recommenders. It is often easier for faculty to address in their own letters of recommendations what look like shortcomings than for students to try to explain their own history--because it reads less like an excuse, and more like an explanation.
3) Have more than one person proofread and comment on your application essay. Revise the essay multiple times. This is a very important part of your application and truly needs to be stellar.
4) Your essay should demonstrate that you are able to formulate both a good research question and the knowledge of how you might conduct research to answer it. We are rarely taught how to write application essays; most students simply list all the reasons they love their field. Your goal is to stand out as an individual--so do include personal touches: a story of an event that got you interested in the field, a question that has always interested you, etc. You also want to convince faculty reading your application that you are not only bright, but also capable of formulating a viable research project. Describing a project you would like to research in grad school--including both the questions you're asking and an idea of how you would research them--is a great way to accomplish that. You may feel intimidated by describing a project when you haven't fully decided how to focus your research--it's important to know that you are free to change directions once you are ready to begin your research. The point of the essay is not to tie you down to a project, but to show how you think and the kinds of questions you are capable of asking.
5) Attempt to solicit letters of recommendation from faculty from whom you have had at least a few classes, or even better, with whom you have participated in research or supervised study. The better someone knows you, the more honest and unique the letter of recommendation will be. "Form letters" are very noticeable, and tend to make admissions committees wonder why you were unable to get a more personalized recommendation.
5) Choose your schools by the program, the faculty and issues of "fit." You will be spending some of the most enjoyable and toughest years of your life at this place-so do the legwork and investigate the various pros and cons. If you have the opportunity, visit the schools prior to applying. Attempt to arrange a meeting with professors or graduate advisors at the schools as well. If you can, try to chat with some of the graduate students to get an idea of the student perspective on grad student life, financial aid, quality of advising, quality of coursework, degree of mentoring/support while in the field, and support during the dissertation-writing phase-student opinions frequently differ from those of the faculty.
6) Be very clear that you do indeed want to go to graduate school. This is an extremely competitive time to be in graduate school, and you will need to excel both to succeed in the graduate program and to find a job once you earn the Ph.D. If you are not quite sure whether this is the route for you, then take some time off between undergrad and grad school.
We require all our majors to complete core (fundamentals) courses in all four subdisciplines of anthropology, as well as a methods course, History and Theory of Anthropology, and a senior seminar or honors thesis. Students focusing on a particular subfield (e.g., historical archaeology, cognitive archaeology, applied cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, linguistics, biological anthropology) should choose electives related to their subfield, and should strongly consider participating in a field school in their subfield, if one is offered. They may also want to consider completing an honors thesis, senior seminar project, or internship in their subfield. Having research experience prior to graduate school or the job market will give students a strong advantage.